Hurry! Hurry! Step Right Up

When I was young my grandfather owned a gas station. It was a magical place with a hose that dinged every time I jumped on it. I loved visiting and I loved to hear his stories about work. He lived right next door, and we all had dinner together almost every night, so I heard those stories often.

One night when I was 6 or 7, he told a story about a ‘colored’ woman who had come in to the station for gas. When he told her how much it was, she said she didn’t have enough money. She asked if she could come back with it later. He looked in the back seat and saw her child, and said, ‘You can go get the money. Just leave the little monkey here for collateral’. She looked at him in disbelief, and said ‘What?’ ‘The little monkey in the back seat.’ he repeated.

I remember the adults at the table laughing. I thought it was a term of endearment, because he had called me and my cousins little monkeys before. I didn’t understand why it was funny. I do remember asking what collateral was.

I don’t know if it was a true story, or if he made it up just to get laughs. Either way, it was a story that was repeated many times by other family members. Sometimes it was told to get laughs. Sometimes to describe my grandfather’s peculiar sense of humor. And ultimately, by me, to point out his ignorance and bigotry.

Today, a friend of mine posted a photo of a carnival game, the predecessor of a ‘Dunk Tank’, a game that was called several different names: African Dodger, Kill the Coon, Hit the N-word Baby. At first I couldn’t believe it was a real thing, but that only lasted a second. So I did a little research, and found so much information.

It was a game where a black man or boy would put his head through a hole in a sheet and the white men would pay to throw baseballs at his head. Baseballs. Hurry! Hurry! Step right up! 3 balls for a nickel! The ‘dodger’ was paid for his time, and he often made more money than he would at manual labor. But some of the dodgers ended up in the hospital with brain damage, and some of them ended up dead.

One of the most disturbing things I learned is that the game was originally played with monkeys as the target, not men. But folks complained of animal cruelty, and they demanded that it be stopped. So the game resurfaced with black men and boys as the targets.

This is the history of our America. White people dehumanizing black people, to justify slavery. Humans who were treated like animals, or less than animals. Our America was founded and built on the idea that black is less than white. Black is less intelligent. Less susceptible to pain. Less capable. Less civilized. Less industrious. Less deserving. Less human. Less than white.

This is the history of our America. White is better. White is superior. And it’s not a very distant history. This game was still being played, in some iteration, in our America, through the 1950s. The 1950s! That’s just one generation ago for me and my family. My mother was a child in the 50’s. That explains my grandfather’s attitudes, and his awful joke. But it doesn’t excuse it.

We cannot excuse our grandparents anymore. We all have to do better than our grandparents did, better than our parents did. And now is the time. Everyone is talking about racism, now. Everything is being brought out into the light, now. Now is the time for us to re-educate ourselves. Time to relearn our shared American history. Time to finally learn the history that includes ALL Americans. Time to do better.

We can do so much better. Hurry, Hurry! Step up, step up.

Watch this video about the game. https://youtu.be/l4oCL99mrRk

2 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your childhood story. This Jim Crow Museum topic was unknown to us. We felt sad and kept trying to remind ourself it was real.

    Your grandfather was a real person. The people throwing the baseballs and the people being hit were real people. We are real people. We can change.

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